THE WARSAW INSTITUTE REVIEW
Date: 15 October 2018 Authors: Laurynas Kasčiūnas, Albert Komar
Hostile propaganda: how it affects Lithuanian society?
State-sponsored propaganda, which in recent years has become a more visible phenomenon, is never spread just for its own reasons. It is either part of a broader foreign policy toolbox or part of the new hybrid warfare, thus pursuing deeper goals.
American scholars Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell defined propaganda as a “deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.”
Propaganda is not a spontaneous activity, but rather a well-thought-out and planned strategy, thus its definition only contains those propaganda activities that can be classified as “deliberate”. Moreover, propaganda is an attempt to create a certain state for a specific audience towards which the propagandist has clear pre-set aims. Succeeding in this attempt is the goal of propaganda. Specifically, propaganda can be dedicated to forming an understanding or perspective (by using and manipulating speech, slogans and symbols), manipulating awareness (by forming cognitive skills useful for the propagandist) or impacting behaviour (by focusing not only on forming a specific mode of thinking and habits, but also on the capacity to “activate” the target group and exploit its actions).
Propaganda can be compared to radiation. Propaganda, just as radiation, can slowly affect society, which, for a long time, does not even recognise that it is being affected. Therefore, the state only turns to its defence system the moment it becomes visible and when perhaps damage has already been inflicted. For example, for more than 20 years, the narrative that Crimea belongs to Russia was pursued by means of soft power. Therefore, when the “little green men” showed up, society in the peninsula did not resist the brutal violations of the most basic international norms in the 21st century.
According to Vytautas Kersanskas, an expert on hybrid threats, propaganda as a phenomenon encompasses a wide variety of manipulation techniques such as overemphasising the facts and making them “breaking news” when they are not; presenting one-sided information; disinformation, etc. All these techniques, including in particular the increased use of fake news, basically serve one goal, i.e. they make people lose hope in the possibility of fully understanding everything and finding out the real truth about the political developments taking place both domestically and internationally. This correlates with the growing distrust in the media and the belief that everyone lies. It is no coincidence that Russia Today (RT), the main globally oriented propaganda channel of the Kremlin, uses a “Question more” slogan, by which they mean to infer that “yes, maybe we are lying, but everyone – including your own government, your own media – lies”. People get confused and become dull and apolitical, because they are no longer aware of which side to choose. For propagandists, the expansion of this grey zone that exists in-between the supporters and the adversaries is useful. Firstly, it is much easier to make indifferent and confused people supportive of propaganda in the long term. Secondly, an apathetic and apolitical society is perfect for employing other hybrid means to influence the development of the country.
Kersanskas notes that although the last couple of years were marked by an increased level of state-sponsored propaganda, it is still not popular to talk about the manipulation of information as an act of war or part of warfare. A peace-time mentality is still leading the narrative; therefore states are quite reluctant to act against this threat. This is also visible in Western democracies where state-sponsored propaganda manages to manipulate the core element of liberal democracy, i.e. the right to personal views and the possibility to express them freely. Therefore, propaganda news outlets become an “alternative opinion” in a pluralist society. However, they are strongly coordinated at the political level of the state, which supports them, or they might even be state-owned news networks, as in the case of Russia. Any attempt to control, limit or ban the spread of propaganda becomes an opportunity to talk about an undemocratic and illiberal act against the freedom of the media, which is why many governments are still afraid to take such action.
Russia has implemented the most integrated system of state-sponsored propaganda in the world. The exact understanding of the Kremlin as to what the media is and what journalists are for has been well represented by Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s Minister of Defence, who said the following: “The day has come when we all have to admit that a word, a camera, a photo, the Internet, and information in general have become a yet another type of weapon, yet another component of the armed forces. This weapon can be used both in a good and in a bad way. This is a weapon that was involved in various events in our country in different years, both in our defeats and in our victories.”
Russia has already developed a unique approach to international politics, which can be regarded as “Russian” geopolitical discipline, marked by a certain perception of the world and Russia’s place in it. Russian propaganda inevitably relates to the desire to export this perception to foreign countries, incorporating the Russian worldview into the consciousness of the largest audience of foreign citizens possible, legitimising this perception globally, and facilitating the realisation of Russia’s foreign policy objectives. After all, a state’s influence increases when it becomes the centre of power that formulates concepts and proposes a wording that others adopt or adapt to. Hence, the worldview of that country becomes a socially constructed truth. The power centre, which is able to impose its definition of reality, also imposes the political rules of the game.
The goal of the Kremlin’s propaganda is to create an image of the Baltic States as “temporary” and “derivative” structures. The constant sticking of such labels as “fake West” and “false Europe” is related to Russia’s geopolitical interest in creating a so-called neutral space between Europe and Russia and maintaining the status of a so-called buffer zone comprising the Baltic States, despite their membership in Euro-Atlantic organizations. There are also attempts to exploit Lithuania’s socio-economic disadvantages by strengthening the cultural divide within the country as well as in Lithuania’s relations with Europe and emphasising the problems of the country’s policy on historical memory.
The propaganda image of Lithuania is created by:
- Emphasising and hyperbolising the problems of social exclusion and emigration in Lithuania, thus forming an image of a “failed state”;
- Contrasting historical narratives (especially with regard to the assessment of the consequences of World War II), thereby creating a myth of Lithuania as a neo-fascist state;
- Highlighting the myth of alleged distrust in Western allies and the importance of the so-called consensus with Russia;
- Supporting the tendencies of closure of national communities, thus encouraging cultural and political fragmentation of Lithuanian society.
Myth of Lithuania as a failed state
In an interview with a US television channel in September 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “only 1.5 million people currently live in Lithuania.” The Russian leader wanted to make the suggestion that Lithuania is a failed state, which, in just over two decades of independence, has lost more than half of its population. Yes, the emigration problem is real in Lithuania and, compared to 1990, there are about 900,000 less people living in Lithuania today. However, the manipulation of data forms a negative image of the country both in the eyes of the US, a strategic partner of Lithuania, and in certain segments of Lithuanian society. In addition, according to the Russian state news agency Interfax, Putin invites Lithuanians to immigrate to the Kaliningrad Region. It should be noted that the alleged narrative of only 1.5 million people living in Lithuania has been repeated several times by Putin in various media outlets.
Russian propaganda also focuses on social problems. Moreover, the vulnerability of post-Soviet states also increases due to the phenomenon of Soviet nostalgia among the population. This is particularly manipulated by Russian propagandists, who maintain that the life in Russia today could be associated with the life that existed in the Soviet Union (hence, for example, the narrative “life was better when we lived together with Russians”). In the Baltic States, the aim is to set people against each other and divide the public by consistently repeating the message that the development of the country has been disturbed, that it is unable to overcome the problems faced by the most vulnerable social groups, and that injustice is thriving. The magnitude of actual problems is stressed by emphasising negative tendencies, which creates a negative atmosphere, undermines confidence in the authorities of the country, and diminishes a sense of pride in the state and its history. In such a medium, society becomes vulnerable.
Lithuania as a neo-fascist state
After the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, there was no space in the narrative of Lithuanian history for the cult of the heroic Red Army and its “glorious” victory in the so-called Great Patriotic War. Today the Lithuanian view of history of World War II recounts the role of the Soviets as being equal to that of the Nazis. In other words, the USSR is perceived as an aggressor which illegally occupied Lithuania, while the people who opposed the Soviet occupation and were participants of the anti-Soviet resistance or underground non-violent resistance (dissident movement) are treated as the new heroes of Lithuania. This narrative of Lithuanian history contradicts the cult of the so-called Russian heroic victory in World War II.
It is precisely for this reason that the Kremlin’s historical policy towards Lithuania has relied heavily on the attempt to persuade that the Soviet occupation was a voluntary step made by the Lithuanian government and its people. There is also widespread questioning of the memory of the restoration of independence and other important dates of the Lithuanian state. Various media outlets are employed to downplay partisan activities, promote nostalgia for the Soviet past, criticise the aspirations to investigate Soviet crimes, and improve the image of those who worked in the Soviet structures and those responsible for mass deportations.
One of the most frequently attacked episodes of Lithuanian history is the tragedy of 13 January 1991 caused by the bloody attack of the Soviet Army against the peaceful people of Lithuania, who defended the recently restored independence of the country. Even in 2007, the Russian broadcaster First Baltic Channel showed a TV programme telling a distorted story of the events of January 13. After repeated reports of such slandering information in 2013, when the commemoration of a freedom fighter of Lithuania was defamed, the channel was banned.
This decision was taken after the TV programme The Man and the Law (Rus. Человек и закон) aired on the First Baltic Channel in October 2013. The programme suggested that on 13 January 1991 not a single man was killed by Soviet soldiers and that there were allegedly evidence that the killing was planned in advance by the Lithuanian leadership. In particular, the programme tried to emphasise that all currently accused persons are Russians only, thereby demonstrating the allegedly existent tension between Lithuanians and Russians. The programme tried to make an impression that the circumstances of the events of 13 January 1991 and the ongoing pre-trial investigation were motivated by national hatred. As in the case of assessing the history of World War II, Russia accused Lithuania of radical nationalism. The aim was to delegitimise the Lithuanian government with the introduction of a conspiracy theory, maintaining that it was the Lithuanian government that was responsible for the victims whose deaths were supposed to incite hatred for the then legitimate Soviet government.
Similarly, other historical topics are also manipulated. For example, there is particular emphasis on the history of the Vilnius Region to create confrontation between Lithuania and Poland. In this case, the merits of the Soviet Union in “returning” the Vilnius Region to Lithuania are emphasised.
Increasing the distrust in Western security guarantees
When Lithuania joined the European Union and NATO, Russian propaganda started creating an image that Lithuania was not an independent state and did not carry out sovereign policies. According to propagandists, even before Lithuania’s accession to the EU and NATO, the country went through a Brussels-Washington controlled path of policy making. This narrative is reinforced by depicting Lithuania as a pseudo-member of the European Union and NATO in order to convey the impression that other members of the organizations would turn their backs on the Baltic States in the event of an emergency.
Lithuania is portrayed as an instigator of tension in the region which artificially increases the threat posed by Russia. The outrage stemming from Russian propaganda that emphasised social problems was caused, in particular, by a statement made by the President of Lithuania maintaining that Russia is a terrorist state and that the Baltic States are therefore asking for permanent deployment of NATO forces. There were widespread Russian disinformation campaigns reacting to other events. For example, the establishment of a joint Lithuanian, Polish, and Ukrainian brigade was interpreted by the Russian media as a means of sending conscripts of the Lithuanian Army to fight in Ukraine.
Russian propaganda related to the activities of the Baltic States in NATO has become especially active. In July 2016, after the NATO Summit in Warsaw took a decision to deploy an international battalion in each of the Baltic States, Russian authorities reacted immediately and stated that the act was considered as NATO’s way of further expanding its borders towards Russia. It was announced that Russia, in response to such actions, would increase its forces along the borders with the Baltic States and in the Kaliningrad Region. Although official statements by the Kremlin, as always, are distinguished by laconic rhetoric, the Russian state media outlined the NATO Summit in Warsaw more visually. In one of the most popular Russian news programmes Vesti (Rus. Вести, which is also broadcast in Lithuania), Dmitry Kiselyov said that NATO’s approach to its relations with Russia has changed substantially after the Warsaw Summit. He maintained that “Russia was no longer a partner, but rather a target”, and plans to create new bases, headquarters and airports, which were discussed at the Summit, “left no doubt that NATO was preparing for a war”. The Russian message was very clear, i.e. NATO’s deterrence measures were causing tension in the region, promoting a so-called arms race and reducing the security of Lithuania and other Baltic States. In this context, however, it is concealed that the arms race in the region had already begun starting from the very moment Russia turned Kaliningrad into its military forefront in the space of just a few years, thus threatening to separate the Baltic States from the Alliance’s defence system.
On the one hand, such statements are aimed to support the hostility of Russian society towards the West. On the other, they seek to provoke anxiety and fear of Russia’s neighbours and NATO member countries, including the people of Lithuania, thus forcing them to feel that they are in danger of war which they do not want at all. Propagandists are deceiving the people of Lithuania and trying to portray, in particular, the US as a state merely interested in maintaining its global hegemony. Under the circumstances of such rhetoric, some political movements are now claiming that Lithuania has once again been “occupied” by alien military forces.
Russian media also attempts to portray the contradiction that arises between the political elite of Lithuania with regards to NATO and its relations with Russia. A lot of attention was paid to the statements made by Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis highlighting that there should be more negotiations with Russia. In June 2016, Andriukaitis criticised Linas Linkevičius, Lithuania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, for his “unfriendly” rhetoric concerning Russia. The news agency Baltnews.ru stated that Andriukaitis’s moderate position in relation to Russia did not coincide with the strict official position of Vilnius. It was also mentioned that Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, was criticised by Linkevičius when the latter expressed his concern for the lack of Europe’s efforts to renew and improve relations with Russia at an economic forum in Saint Petersburg. The purpose of highlighting such disagreements in the Russian media is to convey the impression that the EU is fragmented and that the central EU government would be willing to negotiate if it were not for certain states, such as Lithuania, who have an interest in increasing the military contingent of NATO in their territories in order to deter Russia. The Russian media portray Lithuania as an allegedly uncompromising state which is unwilling to sit at the negotiating table and is actively increasing its military potential at the same time.
Promotion of exclusion of ethnic minorities from Lithuanian society
Unlike in Latvia or Estonia, all inhabitants in Lithuania were immediately granted Lithuanian citizenship after the restoration of the country’s independence. Therefore, for a long time Russia had no reason to speak about discrimination against local Russians in Lithuania. In Estonia and (in particular) in Latvia, the problem of non-citizens (stateless persons) is still widely publicised by Russian propaganda. The Baltic States in the Russian press are constantly portrayed as countries where the rights of Russian-speaking people are violated and their interests ignored. An example of such a narrative is the report of Russian media sources on the alleged Russian language ban in Latvia.
The Russian community in Lithuania is comparatively small and cannot be mobilised to cause cultural and political fragmentation in Lithuania. That is why the Kremlin’s goal is to unite, both politically and culturally, the Russian and Polish communities based on the worldview of the so-called Russian World and by promoting the Soviet nostalgia still felt by those communities. The results of a sociological survey titled Who is guilty for the conflict in Ukraine, conducted by the BNS in 2014, show that Russian propaganda messages about the events in Ukraine resonate in the national communities of Lithuania. Apparently, the share of Poles and Russians who believed that either Ukraine itself or the West were to be blamed for the conflict in Ukraine was significantly larger than that of Lithuanians.
In Lithuania, the creation of a civic platform favourable to the Kremlin is also aimed at uniting national minorities by putting emphasis on domestic policy issues. One way to achieve this is by highlighting the importance of education of national minorities. Russian mass information sources maintain that the two national minorities of Lithuania have been merging for years now and that, since the Soviet times, not only Russians, but also many Poles have acquired education in Russian language. The problem is quantitatively raised by placing the Polish and Russian minorities into a historically and politically common national group, which allegedly suffers from a national government, so that the issue of the Lithuanian Poles can thus become a matter to be addressed by not only Lithuania and Poland but also by Russia. For the Russian-speaking Lithuanian Poles, who feel nostalgic for the Soviet past but do not know much about Poland, Russia claims to be their shelter abroad with its concept of the so-called Russian World.
It should be noted that pro-Kremlin Russian online press (for example, Rubalt.ru) emphasises that the national minorities in Lithuania are allegedly hostages of geopolitics and that the multi-polar international system should be more favourable to the situation of such minorities. In this context, Russia’s support for the narratives of a neo-fascist Lithuanian state and depiction of both NATO and the US as aggressive policy makers serve as a means of deepening the divide between the national communities living in Lithuania and the Lithuanian state and weakening the integration of Lithuanian society.
How to deal with propaganda?
In seeking a recipe that would limit the impact of propaganda, it is, first and foremost, important to answer the question of whether we can equate the impact of propaganda with the spread of Russian media or Russian cultural production in Lithuania. According to sociologist Ainė Ramonaitė, seeing propaganda messages does not necessarily mean mean an acceptance of or reliance on them. Well-thought-out propaganda tries to exploit the prevailing attitudes of society, reinforcing them or linking them with other propaganda messages. This means that the prevalence of every Russian-friendly message cannot be regarded as a consequence of Russian propaganda.
This brings us to another question concerning practical policy: how much do the measures proposed in Lithuania, such as the ban on Russian TV channels or the restriction of Russian production on Lithuanian television channels, make sense? The answer to this question depends on the theory we choose to apply. In this case, two different theories compete with each other, i.e. the theory about the effect of communication and the theory about the model of resonance.
The theory about the effects of communication says that the repeated hearing of a certain message affects the recipient. For example, a 2007 investigation of the impact of the FOX news channel on US voters revealed that watching the channel convinced from 3 percent up to 28 percent of non-Republican supporters to vote for the Republican Party. In this case, it was concluded that even if a person rationally perceives the channel they are watching as biased, repeated hearing of a certain message still affects that person.
The theory about the resonance model claims otherwise, i.e. the effect of a message depends on its compatibility with the person’s beliefs. If the message corresponds to the person’s beliefs, the message is accepted and reinforces the opinion that already exists, and if not, the message is rejected as biased, unreliable, etc. In other words, propaganda is effective when it is based on existing beliefs. The image of the world created by the Kremlin seems persuasive when it fits and “resonates” with the person’s internal attitudes, familiar symbols, and usual cultural and social norms. Therefore, the most important task in the fight against hostile propaganda is to find a way to change that framework which employs all interpretations of empirical (real or false) facts, familiar symbols, and normal cultural and social norms.
A poll conducted in Lithuania asked the people surveyed who was to be blamed for the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. Of non-Russian channel viewers, 67 percent blamed Russia for the war in eastern Ukraine. Of those who sometimes watch Russian channels, 60 percent indicated Russia as the main culprit behind the war in eastern Ukraine. And 46 percent of viewers who watch Russian channels every day mentioned Russia as the main reason for the war in Ukraine. There is a difference found between the groups of television viewers, but it is not as significant as one could expect if the theory of communication effects was absolutely correct.
According to Ramonaitė, an assessment of the Soviet era helps to explain the resistance to propaganda much better than an analysis of the effect of watching Russian TV channels. In other words, the essential difference lies in whether or not a person values the life in the Soviet Union (be it a better or a worse one) more than the life in a free and independent Lithuania. The Soviet-era assessment involves a change in the standard of living by taking into account the person’s status in the Soviet era and how their social status changed after the restoration of independence. The more one appreciates the Soviet era, the more often one watches Russian TV and not the reverse. Sociological surveys show that during the 2012 economic crisis, 42 percent of Lithuanians said the Soviet past was better than the present reality. Now the figure stands at around 25 percent. This shows that the reduction of social exclusion, strengthening of the middle class, and creation of a welfare state are essential policies to strengthening the public’s resilience to propaganda.
On the other hand, there is no need to reject the arguments of the theory of the effects of communication in that the repeated hearing of a certain message may have a certain impact. Lithuania has made some policy decisions that take into account these arguments. For example, the ban on two Russian TV channels resulted in a decrease of watching Russian TV by one third in the space of just a few years.
However, the limitation of Russian TV programmes brought another problem, i.e. the spread of Russian production on Lithuanian TV channels. In the period of one week in January 2007, Lithuanian channels had broadcast 79 hours of Russian production, while the figure soared to 151 hours in 2016 and 198 hours in 2017. Most of this production consisted of Russian TV shows and movies. On some Lithuanian TV channels, almost half of the production was made in Russia. Taking into account the fact that almost all Russian productions are broadcast with Lithuanian subtitles, it was expedient to change the existing legal regulation and establish that television programmes broadcast in non-EU languages are to be translated into the Lithuanian language with either Lithuanian voice-over or dubbing. Currently, broadcasters can choose between a translation and a display with Lithuanian subtitles. Given that translation is expensive, subtitling is usually chosen as the cheaper option. In the absence of such choice, the cost of broadcasting Russian production would increase and also the emotional connection with this production will decrease. It is therefore believed that some broadcasters could reduce the expenses of such production by offering instead more European products to their television viewers.
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